Nov 2006

A Course on Thinking

Lately I've been thinking about a course on thinking. Yes, that's right. It sounds a little weird, I suppose, creating a course on thinking. Why would you need to create such a course? Well, the simplest answer is I'm not aware of anything out there that fits the bill. So in absence of such a course, I need to build one myself. It might only be for myself, mind you, but you never know where this might go.

I've come to view thinking as a skill that can be taught, rather than something innate in people. This idea comes from Edward de Bono, and is something I've commented on before. He has many thinking tools that he has created to facilitate this idea and improve the skill of thinking.

Although the work he's doing is important, I believe that it might be incomplete for what I want. I am interested in the thinking tools, but his tools are sometimes not quite what I'm looking for. For example, his CoRT tools are excellent, but sometimes I want to focus more on perception, something that he covers in his "Po" tool, but perhaps in more of a technical way than I might prefer. I also would like to understand more of the foundation of thinking and again, though he is a starting point, I think I need to go further.

So where to start? Well, as I mentioned to my friend Chris, if I am going to create a course, then I need to come up with a curriculum. That means a syllabus and a reading list.

So, I've started with the reading list. I didn't want the list to be too large, but I wanted enough breadth that it covered the basics to my satisfaction. There are many offshoot areas that could be tackled, but I chose to ignore those for the present moment. They can come later.

So, here is my initial stab at a book list and my reasons for each selection:

Teaching Thinking, by Edward de Bono
Pelican Books, 1978, ISBN 0-14-022163-8

It is with a bit of reservation that I use this book, because I believe that it is currently out of print (all the other books are in print). However, it provides an excellent framework for talking about thinking. It sets the stage by providing a good definition for thinking and talking about it as a skill, relating this to perception and thinking patterns, and talking about how thinking can lead to errors, even when your logic is flawless. This book will be primarily used for theory.

Simplicity, by Edward de Bono
Penguin Books, 1999, ISBN 0-14-025839-0

I've commented on this book before. I include it here because many times part of thinking is related to sorting out complexity or narrowing things down to the appropriate level of relevancy. Although de Bono has thinking tools for this, his Simplicity book is a better generalization for defining the term simplicity (as opposed to simple) and putting some practical frameworks around how you actually make things simpler. There is some theory in this book and also some good practical application.

Metaphors We Live By, by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson
University of Chicago Press, 1980, ISBN 0-226-46801-1

This book specifically focuses on our use of language and how it modifies the way we think. For instance, mathematics is a tool that teaches a system of thought. It is a means of expressing and working with a specific subject area, mainly the sciences. Language is also a tool, though it's used so ubiquitously that people often forget this fact. Because language is a tool, it can express certain types of things but not others (again, a new thought for many). This book discusses the many metaphors in the English language and how it colours our thoughts, without our even realizing it. The intent of including this book is to provide a specific reference to how our thinking can be modified by the tools we use, using a tool that everyone uses: language. This book is a combination of theory and practical application.

Turning the Mind into an Ally, by Sakyong Mipham
Penguin Books, 2003, ISBN 1-57322-345-X

There have been many arguments that language is the basis of all thought. That is, if we didn't have language, then we wouldn't be able to think. Many people cannot conceive of thinking without language, it is so ingrained into us. This book teaches thinking below (above? beyond?) language. It teaches meditation from a Buddhist perspective, but eliminates all the jargon and most of the religious content. It is written for a Western audience and is intended to teach the reader about what the mind really is underlying all our thoughts and feelings. These are difficult concepts to express, but the book does a good job through good examples and stories. This book is included in the list because it provides a different view on how the underlying mind works and how we think. It has a balance of theory and practical application.

Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain, by Betty Edwards
Jeremy P. Tarcher, 1989, ISBN 0-8477-513-2

This book, like the previous one, teaches people how to observe and perceive. Where the "Turning the Mind into an Ally" is internally focussed, "Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain" is externally focussed. It teaches anyone of any skill level (or none at all) how to draw, by retraining people how to look at things. Even people who believe that they have no ability to draw can learn relatively quickly and simply. This book is included in the list because of how it teaches this skill of perception. It is primarily a practical application book.

Learning How to Learn, by Joseph D. Novak and D. Bob Gowin
Cambridge University Press, 1984, ISBN 0-521-31926-9

I have commented on this book before. I believe that adding the concept map skill is a good way of teaching people to organize their thoughts. Mindmaps also work well, but for this purpose I like the "diagnostic" idea presented by this book. With concept maps, you can draw them and then use techniques to determine if you wrote the map correctly and whether you understand what you're trying to draw. This book is primarily theoretical, but I am only going to use the practical part about concept maps.

So there it is: the preliminary list of books. The next step is to form a syllabus based on these books. I expect that to take a while, but at least I have the books narrowed down!